At the Alley
Houston's adult God of Carnage leaves you reeling & laughing
“You look like hell.”
I am certain that’s what my dog Spike, a rumbustious Maltese, thought this morning as I was dramatically woken up by his virile attempts at Darwinian territorial domination: He was barking frantically, persistently and emphatically at his moving reflection on the glass shower wall.
All it took was one stern look for him to understand he needed to stop. He then retreated and resumed his sleeping position on the highest pillow on the bed. At six pounds, he may be small, but his size does not prevent him from claiming his rightful place in the household, with a healthy dose of a Napoleon complex.
He cannot control what he cannot control.
A little bit of a sleepless night, courtesy of the Alley Theatre latest production, God of Carnage, kept me up thinking: What the hell was that? And I mean that with the highest possible compliments.
God of Carnage gave me a lot to think about.
Although the name may resemble an overachieving '70s X-rated film, the kind that attempts to have a plot, the so called God of Carnage, as depicted by Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play, is like an invisible hand, per se, that drives people to be violent and inhumane. All in the name of self preservation.
Perhaps best described as the primal and Neanderthal-esque urge to stake superiority over what is ours, when it comes to protecting our kingdom, civility goes out the window in favor of who has the biggest bamboo stick — high impact fake wrestling body slams, projectile vomiting/snorting, body checking, purse throwing and flower decapitation included.
In the characters’ own words, the work poses the question: How many parents standing up for their children become infantile themselves? God Carnage is most well known for its 2009 Broadway run, which starred acting heavyweights like The Sopranos' James Gandolfini and Jeff Daniels.
The Alley's version begins right here in Houston, at what feels like an upscale Galleria townhouse: Minimalist, artsy, monochromatic, decorated with mid-century modern classic furnishings, a couple of cow hides and dotted with piles of oversize art books. The only spec of color is that of a bunch of recently purchased tulips from Holland, the kind that you find in Central Market “just to the right of the sushi counter,” as described by the homeowner, Veronica Novak (don’t call her Ronnie) smartly played by actress Amy Thone.
After a failed attempt at co-existence, two couples are brought together to discuss a predicament, In Memorial Park, what they consider to be Houston’s security haven, one child clubbed another in the mouth with a bamboo stick causing some nerve damage. The extent of the injury is up to interpretation from a meaningless bruise to permanent disfigurement.
But the story is not about money, as both couples are rather well off. Veronica, a writer, has a fascination with Africa’s tragedies, including the genocide in Darfur, and is expecting the release of her latest book. Her husband Michael, played by Hans Altwies, sells household stuff.
“Our son is a savage,” Alan Raleigh, performed by Denis Arndt, claims about his aggressive nature, citing the typical boys-will-be-boys rules of the playground. At some point during the play, all actors give us a hint of Darwinian reality, but Arndt's character is more in tune and unapologetically genuine than the rest, to a fault.
Alan is a shameless sadistic attorney in the midst of a possible public relations crisis, frequently interrupting conversation to answer his cell phone and give a pharmaceutical client advice on how to deal with the discovery of possible dangerous side effects. After all, “there is no need to take the medication of the market because three people are bumping into furniture. We’ll think about the victims later.”
His trophy wife Annette, played by Bhama Roget, “manages” his money, with style and sass.
Through the comparison of values, interpretations, parenting style, lifestyle choices — including defining an ordinary job from a “funny” job — the couple spirals downward and their interaction degenerates into unruly behavior, beyond the kind one typically catches in reality shows.
And it begins with Annette throwing up all over Veronica’s prized and rare books.
“Is it good Coca Cola? I thought it was only supposed to be for diarrhea,” her husband inquires.
But the couples are not always aligned with their respective spouses. Exploring gender stereotypes, what at one point caused tension between the enlightened hyper-liberal activist wife against the other, who claims to be in “wealth management” (her husband’s that is), turns into camaraderie as they bond over their spouses’ shortcomings, fascination with gadgets and disrespect of one another.
The catalyst? An aged bottle of rum, carried around the room in a religious processional manner, leads to inebriated and hilarious behaviors.
In a triumphant gesture, an interrupting cell phone ends up in the fish bowl.
A 90-minute one-act play, French playwright Yasmina Reza's script is full of delicious one-liners worth memorizing and repeating. Although there were a couple of uncomfortable awkward pauses and some juvenile and unnecessary slapstick moments, most of my evening was spent breaking out and convulsing in adult laughter, the kind you only let out while others are doing the same.
I suppose in many ways, Spike understands the laws of the God of Carnage better than most.
Worth checking out, God of Carnage runs through January 30.